The History of Caste Has Lessons on the Dangers of Social Distancing

Social distancing signals a separation, an alienation, founded on nearness and farness, inclusion and exclusion, inside and outside, purity and pollution, home and world.

We now live in a COVID-19 world. Swiftly, a consensus seems to have emerged around the benefits of ‘social distancing’ for regulating the disease.

While social distancing is, as the name implies, a social practice, its underpinnings are scientific. As a medically ordained method, its claims are potentially universalist. It presumes the equality of all human beings with no acknowledgement of power relations. However, as the history of caste in India suggests, viewing social distancing uncritically, as an undiluted good, can be dangerous.

In India, ‘social distancing’ invokes, and mirrors, distinct social histories of preservation and upholding of caste hierarchies. Social distancing has for long been a central principle and key weapon in the coercive regulation of caste. The discriminatory treatment meted out to Dalits (formerly ‘untouchables’) repeatedly bespeaks the ‘social distancing’ followed by savarnas (so-called ‘non-untouchables’) long before the pandemic.

The low social status and economic marginalisation of Dalits made them vulnerable to the power of the savarnas and their practice of social distancing. In other words, social distancing has been historically a part of an ensemble of savarna social and cultural life. Social distancing signals a separation, an alienation, founded on nearness and farness, inclusion and exclusion, inside and outside, purity and pollution, home and world. Thus, Aniket Jaaware, in his recent book Practicing Caste: On Touching and Not Touching underscores that caste marks the simple divide between touching and not touching – what is considered touchable and untouchable.

Our histories overflow with examples of Dalit distancing. A structuring principle of such distancing has been the construction of separate ghettos for Dalits outside villages and cities – a Chamar tola in the north, a cheri and hulgeri in the south, a wada in the west – meant to distance even the shadow of a Dalit. The description of the village in Tamil writer Bama’s memoir Karukku illustrates a geographical division based on caste hierarchy. This organisation of space acts as a material context and marker of social distancing oriented toward the exclusion of an Other (‘untouchable’) body. It embodies a systematic form of caste inequality, a way of engineering relationships between castes that becomes naturalised as part of our landscape – public spaces/resources (temples, schools, roads, parks, water tanks) were not accessible to ‘untouchables’ until the disrupting arrival of the British.

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Examples of such social engineering abound in literature. Savarna Hindi didactic literature of the early 20th century from the north, similar to many other regions, explicitly commanded its women to maintain social distance from achhut (‘untouchable’) women and men. Supposedly morally virtuous and chaste savarna women had to be kept away from the allegedly loud, raucous, unfeminine, uncultured and shameless Dalit women! Even greater were worries of intimate sexual liaisons and illicit collusions between savarna women and Dalit men.

The ‘solution’ – social distancing. Savarna Arya Samaji reformers extensively distributed soaps among Dalits, as their ‘dirty bodies’ were a physical and moral problem. For a more recent example, we might again turn to Karukku. In an early scene, Bama as a child witnesses a Dalit man carrying food wrapped in a package of leaves to a savarna man by a long dangling string. The reason? To keep the food from being ‘contaminated’ by his touch.

Notions of dirt and cleanliness are not socially neutral enterprises. They are located within, and are constitutive of, space and social relations. Amidst coronavirus fears, the repeated calls to wash hands manage and mask tensions. They camouflage structural, occupational and physical constraints. The history of caste teaches us that the criteria of cleanliness and hygiene is implicitly labelled a characteristic savarna value and used to strengthen cultural, spatial and social boundaries and distances.

This history teaches us that ‘social distancing’ is always expressed in a context where the practice acquires a cultural and social meaning. Thus, in contemporary India the medical procedure of social distancing helps savarnas to reinforce caste prejudices in the name of science. Rumours of the dangers of meat eating, of the good of vegetarianism and the practice of namaste, of the infectiousness of migrants, labourers, and domestic servants allows the powerful to invoke ‘contagion’ to segregate and stigmatise under the cover of law, that is, without attracting the legal force of constitutional provisions targeting caste discrimination.

Also read: Social Distancing and the Pandemic of Caste

The poor (including a large section of the Dalits) are forced to beg, collect leftover food and do menial jobs to survive in this situation of lockdown. As widely reported in the media, migrant poor are sprayed with chemicals as they wearily trek home over hundreds of miles. The image of an unclean ‘untouchable’ gets reinforced in the circulation of these notions. Medical lockdown turns out to be a social lockdown in the Indian context. The result is a thoroughgoing dehumanisation of some in relation to others.

An inquiry into caste discourses, then, should give us pause about the current prevalence of social distancing. The World Health Organisation too has realised the problems in the language of ‘social distancing’ and is advocating against the use of the phrase, instead recommending ‘physical distancing’ (equally problematic) and ‘social solidarity’. However, the history of caste teaches us that a mere change of, and sensitivity to, terminologies will not take us far.

In the Indian context, ‘physical distancing’ is practiced as a custom and, therefore, is socially sanctioned. Within countries like India, the language of social distancing should not be allowed to give caste apologists another reason to defend untouchability. As has been argued by Dalit activists, caste is aided by the virus in its valorisation of the idea of segregation.

A radical and thoroughgoing vigilance is needed with regard to discourses of social distancing, in India and elsewhere. Discourses and practices of social distancing should not be permitted to congeal anywhere around seemingly fixed identities (East Asians or African Americans in the United States, Muslims or Dalits in India, the poor everywhere). Concepts like ‘social/physical distancing’ have great power to generate discourses and practices which reinforce cultural and social segregation and hierarchy.

The history of caste teaches us that the ‘scientificity’ and ‘contextuality’ of distancing needs to be marked by a thoroughgoing and non-negotiable ethics of dignity and rights, including – or perhaps most especially – for those marked by ‘contagion’.

Charu Gupta is at the University of Delhi, K. Satyanarayana at EFLU, Hyderabad, and S. Shankar at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa.

This piece first appeared on the Culture and Quarantine blog of the British Comparative Literature Association website.